3 smart new historic novels

These three new novels all blend history and fiction to good effect.

By , Fiction Critic

1. “The Midwife's Tale,” by Samuel Thomas

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    The Midwife's Tale by Samuel Thomas
    St. Martin's Press
    320 pp.
    View Caption

A woman is sentenced to burn at the stake in 17th-century York. The crime isn't witchcraft; it's petty treason. 

Happily gone from the modern legal code, this was treason defined as a servant killing a master or a wife killing her husband. Esther Cooper wasn't allowed to testify on her own behalf during the trial, which didn't qualify as legal even by the standards of the day.

York is under siege from Parliamentary forces who want to overthrow the king and the lord mayor is determined to put down at least one rebellion. Since he can't manage to kill the rebels outside the walls, he'll kill one within, as Sam Thomas puts it in his first novel, The Midwife's Tale. (The title has echoes of “The Canterbury Tales,” but the mystery is most likely to appeal to fans of Ariana Franklin's “Mistress of the Art of Death” series.)

Esther's friend, Bridget Hodgson, has just days to come up with an alternate explanation as to how rat poison got into Stephen Cooper's milk. Bridget, a midwife, is called in to examine Esther, who has claimed to be pregnant to buy time. (Women could “plead their belly” to postpone execution until after the baby was born.)

The wealthy gentlewoman and her maid, Martha Hawkins (who possesses some unusual talents for a serving girl), dodge artillery fire and more personal attacks as they discover that the ostentatiously devout Puritan was breaking more than a few laws, both Biblical and secular.

Thomas, a historian who lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, modeled his fictional detective on a real York midwife of the same name, whom he discovered through her will.

The mystery is a satisfying one, although Martha's attitudes and abilities border on the anachronistic and there are a few errors an editor really should have caught. (The most Freudian might be when Martha and Bridget give something a “as wide a birth as possible.”) But Thomas includes plenty of details about a midwife's work and standing in society that will fascinate anyone interested in the lives of women. Births in the 17th-century more closely resembled a sorority party, and midwifes acted as morality police as well as obstetricians.

While Lady Hodgson is minor nobility, there's nary a king or duke in sight, making “The Midwife's Tale” a refreshing change from the usual crowns and gowns of historical fiction.

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